musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for October, 2015

Appreciating America: The Band not the Country

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When I was growing up in the USA in the 1970s, one of the more popular musical groups was America. They had a string of big hits, songs that always seemed to be playing on the radio, such as “A Horse With No Name”, “Ventura Highway”, “Sister Golden Hair”, “Tin Man”, and “Muskrat Love.”  After downsizing from a trio to a duo, they hit the charts again in the early 1980s with another massively popular song, “You Can Do Magic.” In some musical circles it wasn’t particularly cool to be a fan of America, but there was no denying the pure pop power of their songs: well-crafted tunes further brightened by the band’s radiant harmonies.

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But if you thought America was one of those oldie acts that had seen its better days, guess again. Although they did take a lengthy break from recording after releasing the Perspective album in 1984, the group has been quite active in the past decade, releasing several fine new albums and performing a series of concerts.

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In 2007 the group — now composed of founding members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell — released Here & Now, a double CD set that included an impressive album of new songs (the group’s first new recordings since 1984’s Perspective), plus a bonus disc of live concert recordings. Intriguingly, the album was co-produced by James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins and Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, giving the album a convincing “alternative” cache while retaining the classic elements of America’s sound. The new songs on the first disc were a mix of original material and covers, among them My Morning Jacket’s “Golden” and an achingly beautiful version of Nada Surf’s “Always Love.” Listening to these fine new songs was a revelation; America truly sounded as good as they ever had.

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In 2011 they released Back Pages, an album of astutely chosen cover tunes. This was one of those cases of a band making someone else’s songs their own, or at least sounding like they were tailor made for them. Among the highlights were covers of classic tunes by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, the Zombies, Brian Wilson, Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, James Taylor, and George Harrison, as well as pleasing takes on songs by newer bands such as the Gin Blossoms and Fountains of Wayne.

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Earlier this year another new America album, Lost & Found, was released. These new songs were actually older ones, recorded between 2000 and 2011. While that period might not be considered the “golden age” of the band by some fans, these “lost” songs are all of high quality and worthy additions to the group’s catalog. Listen to Beckley and Bunnell sing; after all these years, they haven’t lost their melodic magic whatsoever.

Meanwhile, here are the other CDs that I have been playing frequently lately, prompting several instances of dancing in the moonlight and bouncing off the walls.

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Sory Kandia Kouyate – La Voix De la Revolution

Punch Brothers – The Phospherescent Blues

Keith Richards – Cross Eyed Heart

Georgie Fame – Mod Classics 1964-1966

Various Artists – Dessu Records Story

 

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Various Artists – Palenque Palenque: Champeta Criolla & Afro Roots in Colombia 1975-91

Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There

Sam Dees – It’s Over: 70s Demos & Masters

Various Artists – California Funk

Denise LaSalle – Make A Good Thing Better: The Complete Westbound Singles 1970-76

 

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Robert Palmer – Pressure Drop

Tommy Guerrero – Lifeboats and Follies

Goldfrapp – Black Cherry

Sturgill Simpson – High Top Mountain

The Beau Brummels – Autumn of Their Years: Nuggets From the Golden State

 

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The Notations – Still Here 1967-1973

Various Artists – Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest in Funk & Soul 1965-75

Brewer & Shipley – Down in L.A.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet – In Chicago

Detroit Emeralds – Do Me Right/You Want It You Got It

 

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Al Stewart – Famous Last Words

Michael Chapman – Wrecked Again

  1. Z. Hill – The Down Home Soul of Z. Z. Hill

Old 97’s – Most Messed Up

Roy Ayers & Wayne Henderson – Step Into My Life/Prime Time

 

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Eddie Bo – Baby I’m Wise: The Complete Ric Singles 1959-1962

Plainsong: Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina

Richard Betts – Highway Call

Various Artists – Joe Gibbs: Scorchers From the Early Years 1967-73

The Youngbloods – Get Together: The Essential Youngbloods

 

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The Green Arrows – 4-Track Recording Session

Charles Earland – Leaving This Planet

Hank Crawford & Jimmy McGriff – Soul Survivors

The Misunderstood – Before the Dream Faded

J.J. Grey & Mofro – Ol’ Glory

 

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Bobby Patterson – Texas Soul Man Extraordinaire

Richard Thompson – Still

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Dynamic Label

Drive-By Truckers – Alabama Ass Whuppin’

Cowboy – Reach For the Sky

 

The Counts – What’s Up Front That Counts

Isaac Hayes – Truck Turner/Tough Guys

Jackie Mittoo and the Soul Brothers – Last Train to Skaville

Electric Light Orchestra – Out of the Blue

Elbow – Build a Rocket Boy

The “Good Lord” is not answering your calls

If there is one thing that baffles me, and often drives me crazy about mankind, it’s those people who espouse fervent religious beliefs. Even nowadays, in this age of advanced scientific knowledge and greater acces to information, you see far too many people relying on their “faith” to make decisions or form opinions, believing that a “miracle” or “the grace of God” will solve a problem. Stories about “extremist” Muslims are prominent in the news nowadays, but I think the devout Christians, Jews, and Hindus are just as disturbing — and just as dangerous. Call me an atheist, call me a heathen; just don’t call me a mindless follower of some nonsensical religion.

You wouldn’t think that religion and sports would be a compatible couple, but that’s not the case either. I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a snot-nosed kid and all these years later I still follow the sport, despite the outrageously high salaries that players are making, not to mention the cost of attending games. Listening to games on the radio and reading box scores in the daily newspaper many years ago led to watching games on TV and going to the parks to see games in person. Now that I live in Thailand I’m content to check scores online each day, catching the occasional video highlights of a game. Baseball has always had it share of quirky rules and even quirkier players, but it also boasts many religious players, ones who seem to think that divine intervention will affect the outcome of the game or help them individually. You will often see Catholic players crossing themselves when they step into the batter’s box, while other Christians point to the sky after scoring a run or hitting a home run. “Thank you Jesus, that just helped my batting average!” But baseball is not the only sport where the religious loonies believe that praying is going to give them an added edge or ensure victory. You see these pitifully pious acts in football, basketball, and other sports too.

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Last week the Toronto Blue Jays were playing the Texas Rangers in the first round of the year-end playoffs when one bizarre play left everyone scratching their heads. The Toronto catcher was attempting to throw the ball back to the pitcher when the ball glanced off the bat of the Texas player who was still standing in the batter’s box. After the ball caromed off the bat, a runner on third base alertly ran home to score. Initially, the umpire ruled it a dead ball, but on further reflection he cited an obscure rule and reversed his call, allowing the run to score. That run put Texas ahead at the time, but they ended up losing the game. That was obviously a big relief to the Toronto players and fans, but obviously not a surprise to the “real” believers. One of the Toronto players, a born-again Christian pitcher named R. A. Dickey said of the controversial play, “I was thinking there is no way that the Good Lord is going to let a game end like that, no way.”

Huh? “Ya Gotta Believe” is one thing, but a statement like this is simply ludicrous. Even if you are one of those superstitious sorts that believe that there is such a thing as a “Good Lord,” do you really think that your “savior” is going to give a flying fandango about the outcome of a baseball game? Honestly, these people are delusional.

In a somewhat comical twist of irony, Dickey was the pitcher for Toronto last night and was shelled by the Kansas City Royals, losing the game by a big margin. Obviously, the “Good Lord” wasn’t inclined to help out Mr. Dickey and the Blue Jays this time around. What, he wasn’t answering your prayers? Well, if he’s not answering those calls, maybe posting something on his Facebook page might catch his attention?

Over the Hills and Far Away: Visiting Exotic Places with Good Books

As locales go, Alaska and Myanmar are worlds apart — or at least half a world apart — but two books that I recently read, one fiction and the other a memoir, evoked similar senses of adventure and delight. Over the hills and far away, travelling to distant lands and discovering different ways of life and love.

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The first book I read was Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska by Janet Brown. Janet is actually a good friend of mine and she lived in Bangkok for many years before moving back to the USA to be closer to her two adult sons in Seattle. So, yeah, maybe I’m biased, but friend or not, I can’t help but be very impressed with this book. There is no denying the fact that Janet is a very talented writer, one who knows her craft and can vividly describe a setting. In this book she deftly relates her experiences of growing up in rural Alaska, a place that was “still locked in the nineteenth century.”

Basically, this book is a tribute to Janet’s mother who passed away a couple of years ago. Her mother had not wanted a memorial service or legions of mourners gathered by her grave, so this book became Janet’s way to “honor and remember her in a form that would have pleased her.” Indeed, the love of reading books was one of the strong bonds between mother and daughter, and you feel that closeness throughout this moving book. On the back cover Janet describes her mother as “a woman with persistent optimism in a life that was studded with tragedy, this New Yorker with eccentric dreams had the courage to build a life for herself and her family in a place that was truly wilderness, a domain of wind, grass, and trees. The daily life she lived was difficult, but it was her own. She chose it all, she crafted it, and she savored it.”

Not only does Janet offer a glimpse of her mother’s non-traditional life, she takes the reader into the heart of the beautiful and sometimes cruel geography of rural Alaska.  Growing up on this “last frontier”, Janet and her mother—  and so many others — were deprived of things that us city dwellers take for granted, yet you never sense that she felt deprived or cheated. Instead, as she writes, this remote setting “was simply a launching pad for new exploration.”

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Janet Brown is also the author of several other books published by Things Asian Press, including Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, both of those also excellent reads.

The other book that I just finished this week was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. This novel has floated in and out of my bookshop numerous times over the past few years, but until my friend Myriam recommended it to me recently I had never bothered to read the blurb on the back cover, which would have informed me that the story was set in Myanmar! Not only that, most of the story takes place in the Shan State town of Kalaw, just down the road from usual haunts in Nyaungshwe.

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Once again, I may be a bit biased in my take on this book, but honestly, this was one of the most memorable and moving novels that I’ve read in a long, long time. Many reviews described this as a love story, and there is no denying that romance plays a big part in the plot, but this book is also a bit of a mystery, as well as an insightful look into Burmese society and its traditions and customs. The author (or at least the translator: this was originally written in German) does a fine job of describing the town of Kalaw, from its teashops and homes to its monasteries and surrounding mountains. Close your eyes and you can hear and smell and feel so many different things. Indeed, the ability to utilize — and appreciate — different senses (especially the part about “hearing heartbeats” from the book’s title) is a major theme of this novel.

Elements of the plot, especially one facet of the story’s ending, can occasionally be baffling or frustratingly predictable, but even those parts are so well written that they border on the poetic. To call this book magical and inspirational would not be an understatement, or a cliché. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a very special novel.

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One reason I had never paid much attention to this book previously was due to the relatively bland front cover. Well, maybe bland isn’t the best description, but nevertheless there was nothing particularly Burmese about the artwork. I don’t care what they say, you CAN judge a book by its cover, or at least pay more attention to it. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I did an online search and discovered that the book has been reprinted with several different new covers, ones with more of a Burmese theme! The downside is that one cover shows the temples of Bagan, while another depicts the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, neither place of which is remotely near Shan State! Nevertheless, if one of those striking new covers had appeared in my shop, I would have picked up this book a lot sooner than I did.

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Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.

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In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.

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That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.

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And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!

 

Wild in the Monastery!

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Back again for another quick visit with the novice monks who reside at the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. They are a lively, personable bunch of kid and certainly not shy in front of the camera. Today, we present the unabashed, wilder side of these young monks.

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From Mandalay to Japan

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She’s in the air as I write this, flying from Mandalay to Tokyo with a layover in Seoul, South Korea. Yes, Khin Nwe Lwin, the brilliant young woman from 90th Street in Mandalay is off to study at a university in Japan. To say this is big news for Khin Nwe Lwin and her family would be an understatement. This is a life-changing opportunity.

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I’m sure that her father, U Nyunt Tin, is extremely proud of her, as are her mother and siblings, plus her cousins and friends, most of them living within a stone’s throw of U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. And hey, I’m proud of her too. Khin Nwe Lwin is an amazing young woman and I feel privileged to count her as a friend. I hope that her experience in Japan will be both enjoyable and beneficial.

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Earlier this year she won a scholarship to attend the graduate school of Natural Science and Technology at Okayama University, where she will be a doctoral student for the next three years. But it’s been a nerve-wracking past few months, as Khin Nwe Lwin had to travel to Nay Pyi Daw and apply for a passport, and then wait patiently to get that passport and then the all-important travel visa. Last week she finally got all the necessary documents and was good to go! I got a note from her a few hours ago, saying that she was at Incheon Airport in Seoul, waiting for her next flight to Tokyo.

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This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Congratulations and best of luck to Khin Nwe Lwin!

 

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